As far as Bioware Games go, the Dragon Age series is near and dear to my heart. Inquisition and Origins are among my favorite games of all time, but my expectations were mixed when I first jumped into Dragon Age 2. People often say this game is the worst of the trilogy. After all, It did have the shortest development period, a compact story without much exploration, and a shocking and controversial ending. Color me pleasantly surprised because I came to enjoy this installment far more than I originally thought I would!
What It’s About
The Dragon Age series currently consists of three games: Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, and Dragon Age: Inquisition. In DA2, you follow a character named Hawke, as they flee the Ferelden blight with their family and a number of people they meet along the way. Ultimately, they land in Kirkwall, a place known for its disdain of mages. This point is pretty significant as canon Hawke, I believe, is a mage.
Years move forward, and Hawke makes a name for themselves often being referred to as the Hero of Kirkwall. Naturally, Hawke becomes entangled within the web of Kirkwall politics where everyone – the chantry, the templars, the mages, the nobles, the elves etc. – has a stake in the game. When the tenuous relationship between these different groups finally strains to the point of snapping, the fate of the city and the people within it fall into Hawke’s, and the player’s, hands.
It’s a story about a city, its people, what it means to be human; a commentary about what can happen when a city becomes undivided to the point of shattering.
What I Loved…
What makes this game worth playing is the brilliant story. Sure it isn’t as broad in scope or as sweeping as the first game, but that is perhaps also the magic. It’s a contained story focusing on a singular person and place, but the topics it discusses are universal.
You advance through the game via three story “acts” which coincidentally mirror the three act story structure often found in books, movies, and other media: Setup, Conflict, Resolution. The game can feel a little linear at first for this reason, but it’s odd because the story line also feels fragmented. Why am I going to the deep roads? What do the Qunari have to do with anything? Who cares about Knight Commander Meredith? At times, I found myself wondering why does this matter?
Act III cured me of all those questions since I finally saw how everything slotted into place. It’s a bit of a wild story, but the pieces really do come together to create the grand finale. It’s a shame that you can’t really see that until the end, but may be that is also the point? I won’t get into spoiler territory, but it’s fascinating from a character study to consider how end game actions are hinted at and sprinkled throughout the entire narrative… but as a character we almost choose to be blind to it? The ending comes as a shock rather than predictable story progression… at first. Then you go back, and the answer was staring you in the face. You just chose to ignore it. Something about that type of story is strangely compelling to me.
Lastly, I adored the dark tone of this story which aligns closely with the tone of Origins. Blood magic and its perils are a big theme throughout this game, and some of the resulting game events still haunt me. The decisions you have to make are sometimes… brutal. The story pulls no stops, and that is admirable. I wish Inquisition had held on to the series’s dark themes, but that is a conversation for another day.
I’m going to touch briefly on the characters and romance options. The cast is great! They’re characters with varying degrees of moral fiber and gray-ness that still allow you to fall in love with them. They respect you even if you don’t share the same opinions on everything and are not afraid to tell you what you’re doing is wrong. They feel real. Even if this cast isn’t perfect, I can’t help but respect their motivations and passions. Some stand outs are Fenris, Merril, Varric, Anders, and Isabella. Naturally, I romanced Fenris because who wouldn’t, but I’m hoping to give Merril a shot in the future. She’s probably the most frustrating but endearing character to me out of the entire cast. I would like to see her happy!
Lastly, let’s talk alignment systems. DA2 doesn’t have one per se, but it does have a Rival versus Friendship system with all of the player companions. The actions you take during the game will either make your companions see you as more of a friend or more of a rival. Additionally, you get bonuses – both combat and end game – with maxing out either end of the alignment spectrum and can potentially be penalized for keeping your companionship at neutral. I love this! It forces you to play Hawke’s consistently throughout the game but takes out the “good” and “evil” argument. There will always be companions rivaling you or becoming your friend whatever decisions you make, and I’m all about that kind of spiciness. Did I mention you can even romance people as full on rivals because when you max out the rival meter it means you still have their utmost respect? That is pretty freaking wicked if you ask me.
…What I Didn’t
How can I possibly express how much I disliked the actual gameplay of DA2? HOW? This is one aspect of the game that is so freaking bad that at times the game is more or less unplayable and boring.
To give some context. This game was released less than two years after the release of Origins. That is a short development period. Because of that, the game suffers from a simplification of the combat system and a simplification of the maps you are given to travel through.
Going from Origins with its deep well of mage abilities – I’ve only played mage during both of these games so I can’t comment on other playstyles and classes – to this simplified system is frustrating. I prefer to play as a crowd control mage who also does a ton of damage. With Origins, I had so many options for this playstyle. With DA2 it is simplified and later in Inquisition it’s even more so. I wish the developers would stop over simplifying combat for action RPGs. As a rule, I prefer turn based RPGs, but with Origins you were almost playing a turn based RPG with action RPG elements. I loved that! Give us more of that good, good RPG gameplay with more options, you cowards!
As far as the map and environments go… repeated environments, repeated enemy types, repeated well everything is just… well… it’s not good. Some games have made this work remarkably well like Majora’s Mask, but DA2 really suffers from it. Who wants to fight through the same maps over and over again. What’s the fun in that? Where is the sense of adventure and surprise? If the story wasn’t great, I would 100% say this game is worth an entire skip for the repeated environments alone.
… Since the story is just that good, I can do nothing but recommend it. It’s the shortest game in the Dragon Age series which helps push aside the gameplay issues, and once you get engrossed in the story the urge to find out what happens next is real. Truly, I heartily recommend it. And that ending! I know thoughts on the ending are mixed… but I loved it. Everything fits and feels right.
After all, you don’t have to like how a story ends for it to be a good story.